You are here: Home Our Research Research Areas Research Area D: Labor and Spatiality

Research Area D: Labor and Spatiality


Challenging Present Distinctions Between "Free" and "Unfree" Labor Relations

Photo by Andrew Itaga, unsplash

Research Area D no longer adopts European free wage labor as the standard labor relation of modernity. Instead of this approach it takes all forms of labor into account in equal measure: "free" and "unfree" forms of labor, productive and reproductive labor, capitalist and non-capitalist labor relations – in both Western and non-Western societies, from within and beyond European (colonial) history.

Lately a new and expanding field of research has emerged that advocates a systematic expansion of the traditional concept of labor and a revision of the master narratives of Western modernity. In that sense, slave labor is now conceptualized as one form of coerced labor alongside convict labor, debt bondage, serfdom or servitude. This approach has brought to the fore the many grey areas, overlaps and contradictions between (purely formal-legalistically and terminologically speaking) distinct forms of "unfree" labor and personal dependency relations.

The Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies's focus on societies and areas outside the realm of Western colonization and on pre-modern European phenomena can contribute to this debate by challenging present distinctions between "free" and "unfree" labor relations and helping to re-conceptualize long-term socio-economic shifts and trends beyond the European master narrative of the rise of the West. Transculturally and diachronically comparative studies have shown that unfree labor relations are not necessarily associated with despotic regimes and that the development of markets and economic growth is not always tied to the emergence of a capitalist economic system. Similarly, the idea that human history can be written teleologically, as a long-term development from unfree to free forms of labor organization, is considered disproved. What is still missing, however, is a dialogue between socio-economic historians working on earlier periods and global labor historians focusing on the time from 1500 up to the present.


The research area Labor and Spatiality will advocate a temporal extension of the field. While Global Labor History has understood its extension of traditional labor history mainly in spatial terms, it is high time to link this research with earlier periods.

In order to move beyond the Western/modern dichotomies of "free" and "unfree" labor relations as well as capitalist and feudalistic economic systems and to overcome facile labels of "modernity" and "pre-modernity", we only need to look at modern conditions inside and outside the West. This research needs to be combined with studies of the so-called "premodern era" both within and outside of Europe. What is called for is a strategic alliance between Europe-centered pre-modernity studies and the diachronically oriented area studies in the field of labor.

The traditional image of the worker must be challenged by the figure of the unskilled ancilla in late medieval Europe just as much as by today’s textile worker in Bangladesh or the outsourced worker in a call center in Western Europe. Only through such a transculturally and diachronically comparative perspective on servitude relations is it possible to examine conjunctures of slavery beyond the modern/Western conception of history. While existing pre-modern studies on the history of labor have remained largely separate from the debates of Global Labor History, the research area aims to establish a connection between the two and thus to act as a productive spur to current discussions.

The research area also targets the spatial dimension of asymmetrical dependencies. The history of labor cannot be told without taking into consideration the history of migration. It is not by chance that migration, coercion and labor precariousness have become keywords for a new research agenda of Global Labor History. Most forms of dependent labor are closely entangled with the history of forced migration.



At the same time, processes of immobilization (i.e., the serf bound to the soil, or a convict tied to a prison, a camp or a remote plantation) are equally crucial for understanding the "logic of deployment" of the workforce by an employer. Spatial mobility therefore must include short-, medium- and long-distance migration as well as voluntary and coerced forms of mobility. What needs to be studied here, therefore, is the dialectics between the spatial mobilization and immobilization of the workforce. In order to study both processes simultaneously, we will above all address the question of how mobilization and immobilization are entangled in specific sites and institutions of dependency (e.g. the plantation, the household, the military, etc.).

With the exploration of workers’ experiences for coping with dependency this research area will make it possible to map dependency on an alternative scale, between autonomy and coercion, and to increase the awareness of the dependents’ scope of action and their options for social mobility.

Detailed Research Agenda


Download the detailed research agenda of Research Area D: Labor and Spatiality here.

Members of Research Area D

Martin Aust  Prof. Dr. Martin Aust
 Research Area Speaker
Anas Ansar  Anas Ansar, M.A.
 Secondary Affiliation
Christoph Antweiler  Prof. Dr. Christoph Antweiler
 Secondary Affiliation
Mariana Armond Dias Paes  Dr. Mariana Armond Dias Paes
 Secondary Affiliation
Martin Bentz  Prof. Dr. Martin Bentz
 Secondary Affiliation
Jeannine Bischoff  Jeannine Bischoff, M.A.
 Secondary Affiliation
Stephan Conermann  Prof. Dr. Stephan Conermann
 Secondary Affiliation
Christian De Vito  Dr. Christian G. De Vito
 Main Affiliation
Adam Fagbore  Adam Fagbore, M.A.
 Main Affiliation
Katja Girr  Katja Girr, M.A.
 Main Affiliation
Avatar_Frau.jpg  Susana Macias Pascua, M.A.
 Secondary Affiliation
Danitza L. Márquez Ramírez  Danitza L. Márquez Ramírez, M.A.
 Secondary Affiliation
Ludwig Morenz  Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz
 Secondary Affiliation
Hanne Osthus  Dr. Hanne Østhus
 Secondary Affiliation
Martin Schermaier  Prof. Dr. Martin Schermaier
 Secondary Affiliation
Winfried Schmitz  Prof. Dr. Winfried Schmitz
 Main Affiliation
Nabhojeet Sen  Nabhojeet Sen, M.Phil & M.A.
 Main Affiliation
Elena Smolarz  Dr. Elena Smolarz
 Secondary Affiliation
Konrad Voessing  Prof. Dr. Konrad Vössing
 Main Affiliation
Bethany Walker  Prof. Dr. Bethany J. Walker
 Main Affiliation
Patrick Zeidler  Patrick Zeidler, M.A.
 Secondary Affiliation
Michael Zeuske  Prof. Dr. Michael Max Paul Zeuske
 Main Affiliation
Reinhard Zoellner  Prof. Dr. Reinhard Zöllner
 Main Affiliation

Research Group "Punishment, Labor, Dependency" of Research Area D and its Members

Christian De Vito  Dr. Christian De Vito
 Researcher and Coordinator
 of the Research Group
 Punishment, Labor,

 Research Area D
Nabhojeet Sen  Nabhojeet Sen, M.Phil. & M.A.
 Doctoral Researcher
Adam Fagbore  Adam Fagbore, M.A.
 Doctoral Researcher

Projects and Events

Textbook Presenting a Narrative of Labor History

The research area will produce a textbook presenting a narrative of labor history based on the insights of recent scholarship. Such a textbook does not yet exist and is much needed, especially as the Cluster of Excellence as such will teach future generations about labor-related dependencies.

Unlike similar publications, this textbook will be not be an edited volume, but a publication written collaboratively by a small group of authors. It will be organized thematically, but base its arguments on empirical insights.

Key themes and narrative strategies include:

  1. mobilization and immobilization of the workforce;
  2. labor along commodity chains (e.g. silver, cotton, rice…);
  3. global lives and prosopographies of laborers;
  4. sites of labor (i.e., specific places, work-sites, institutions);
  5. the working class (i.e., how can we reconceptualize the "working class" once we go beyond its traditional conflation with modern wage labor?);
  6. towards "free", waged labor? Forced labor, the ambiguity of contract, and labor precarity.

In addition to the textbook project, a programmatic article published in a peer-reviewed Anglophone academic journal like the Journal of Social History, the American Historical Review or Labor History will present the Bonn case for a temporal and methodological extension of Global Labor History to the international research community.

Workshops and Seminars

Workshops and seminars of the Research Area D can be found on our events website.

Document Actions